If Anatoly Chubais ever had scruples, or reluctance at setting them aside, he has understood the lesson offered by that arch-plotter, the Marquise de Merquise in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the pre-revolutionary French classic, who advised: “the best way of overcoming scruples is to leave those who have them with nothing more to lose.”
In Chubais’s case, for as long as the Russian winter lasted in parallel with the parliamentary and presidential election campaigns, he has known that his own interest at the head of the national power utility, United Energy Systems (UES), was unlikely to be upset by President Vladimir Putin, Indeed, Putin signed into law the legislation Chubais had helped draft. That set out the framework for restructuring the utility into separate generating and distribution units, and for stimulating price competition in the Russian energy market. The resulting legislation is ambiguous enough to allow Chubais to continue claiming public fealty to the Kremlin’s purposes; and at the same time private preferment to those industrial interests and shareholders, in whose interest Chubais had drafted earlier versions of the framework. For the past six months, therefore, Chubais was as scrupulous in maintaining the supply of electricity to the voters, as he was in plotting to divert their votes, and assets, away from the president,as best he could.
Now that the spring has almost arrived, and there are no further national election campaigns, Putin has the opportunity to apply the Marquise’s lesson to weigh the usefulness of the man, who has had his finger on the nation’s power switch for four years, just as he had his grip on the state’s wealth for seven years before. For a man with scruples like Chubais’s, there can be no better opportunity than to despatch him as Russia’s Ambassador to Washington.
The case for replacing Chubais at UES is based on the man’s 10-year record for serving himself at the expense of everyone else; his incapacity to be believable; and the danger that the partiality of his deeds and the unreliability of his words pose for the future welfare of the country. Chubais is not simply one of the masterminds of Boris Yeltsin’s programme of corruption, which the parliamentary and presidential election results demonstrate the country wants to be rid of. Chubais continues to be Yeltsin’s political heir, as the ex-president has repeated more than once, and continues to confirm by meeting with him regularly. Chubais is thus a political challenge to the Putin presidency, now, and in four years’ time. The campaign he launched last autumn, ostensibly on behalf of the Union of Right Forces, but actually on behalf of his future presidential prospects, was a national call to vote against the energy policies of the other parties. It was also an invitation to Russian voters to decide whose finger they want on the power switch – Chubais’s, or someone else. The outcome confirmed the thumbs down for Chubais personally, and for his party associates. How can the national mandate be any clearer? Chubais didn’t add to voter support of the Union of Right Forces, which failed to surmount the 5-percent barrier to reenter the Duma. The overwhelming view of the electorate is that Chubais is unfit to Gcommand a position of public trust.
To most Russians, Chubais represents the corrupt concentration of wealth that has come to be known as the oligarch system. The privatization programme he administered for the benefit of the oligarchs between 1993 and 1998 is said, in his defence, to reflect no more than his skill at management; while the initiative, and responsibility, for the corrupt property transfers allegedly lie elsewhere. If this is to plead that Chubais was the Adolph Eichmann of Russian privatization, why then did he attempt the same game again in 2001-2003, when he proposed restructuring UES in such a way as to benefit oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska and Mihkail Khodorkovsky? The latter was busy buying up electricity generating assets until he was arrested and imprisoned last October.
According to Putin’s recent speech to a meeting of the ministries of finance and economic development, “the state of the economy and the state of public finances today is such that these transformations I mentioned should not be carried out at the people’s expense.” This is not just a standard which Chubais’s career demonstrates he has never met. It is a standard for which no verbal commitment from Chubais could ever be trusted.
But there have been occasions on which Chubais’s words seem more credible than the rest. When Khodorkovsky was arrested, for example, Chubais not only publicly took his side, but threatened Putin with a rebellion of capital. That he quickly thought the better of this ploy doesn’t make him more trustworthy or scrupulous now, when Putin is publicly enunciating the view that “the state should manage only the property it needs to carry out its public functions, ensure state power, and guarantee the country’s security and defence capacity.” If Chubais had had his way with UES, by now Russia’s electricity grid would be co-owned by foreign institutions and the offshore entities belonging to the oligarchs. Prices and supplies of electricity would be as efficiently managed as we now know Enron was able to achieve in California. Russia’s natural advantages in energy supply would have been dissipated to the benefit of its foreign competitors.
The case for Chubais to remain at UES is based on three ideas offered by those closest to him in the western investment community
– that he is the only man in Russia who can administer the electricity system;
– that Russia is a democracy in which men like Chubais are free to express their opposition to the President, and
– that the decision has already been made by the Kremlin to retain Chubais.
Those who argue the first and third points frankly admit that they had no advance idea of the choices Putin would make for his new government. Accordingly, they concede that there may be a genius for administering the nation’s electricity supplies that they haven’t heard of, yet. But as the Chubais defenders are largely tied to the US investment and strategic communities, they take for granted the extent to which keeping Chubais at UES is good for US interests. They haven’t noticed how those interests have been diverging from the Kremlin’s.
That Chubais has always been good for US interests is clear from the record of the Yeltsin period. That Putin should test his scruples and place his US relationships at the service of Russia would be an adaptation of Chubais’s skills that his defenders ought to endorse.
And so, the case for Chubais to be assigned to a fresh mission ought naturally override whatever decision may already have been taken in his case, especially as the Kremlin has begun to realize just how serious a threat anti-Russian and anti-Putin sentiment is in Washington right now, at the start of the US presidential election campaign. At this very moment, for example, at least two Russian oligarchs have sent messages to Putin assuring him that they are prepared to spend millions of dollars on lobbying in Washington – funding the US media to counteract the negative campaign, even funding US support for the release of the Russian secret service agents in Qatar, and a handful of other sensitive schemes. With friends and schemes like those afoot, Chubais is urgently needed in Washington to demonstrate his managerial skills in the only constituency where he is trusted. Let him go quickly, and return in November, when the Americans will have voted, and when winter and power outages are threatening ordinary Russians again.